There is nothing more tragic than being a refugee in ones’ own homeland. Exile is no longer an imagined place or ambiguous choice. It is a reality forced on by the trauma of a natural or man-made crisis, sharpening the pain and loss of leaving home, of facing the unsaid horror of becoming a third-class citizen in one’s own country.
Yet, despite the outpouring of public grief at the human deprivation distilled on television without interruption, and national discourse forcing many graphic realities out in the open, a few issues remain un-addressed, while others bear reiteration. While Pakistani families have opened up their homes in the NWFP, given that 80 per cent of refugees are guests in people’s homes, the collective expression of support, both in terms of services and resources that we witnessed in the 2005 earthquake effort is missing. Instead of apportioning blame on the media, which is the inevitable whipping-boy, or surrendering to public apathy about assistance, the reasons for that need to be examined without delay. This is not to minimize or discount the heroic effort put in by NGOs or individuals even today all over the country, but simply to identify a macro trend. The exceptional work being done by Sungi, Sarhad Rural Support Programme, SPO, SPARC, Sarhad PMA and many individuals and expatriates almost round the clock is testimony to the support offered by citizens in every crisis. However, the element of national collective mobilisation as witnessed in the earthquake is sorely missing from the ongoing efforts.
One of the problems stemming out of this tragedy is a crisis of management and credibility, not just that of governance. The bulk of the public appears to be either removed from the reality of the crisis, or in a mild state of shock, slowing effective reaction. Many insist that they want to help, as there is an increased stake by citizens in the state, but see no consistent or credible point of entry for themselves. Corporations that have experience with previous disaster assistance are sending out their own needs-assessment teams, or simply sending in a minimum committed contribution mostly in terms of goods, not services. For anyone who has been out there in the field, it is clear that the challenge of displacement of the Malakand and Buner residents and those from other terrorism-hit areas is not a managed process. This too cannot be just thrown away as a classic government incompetence issue. There can be no dispute that this exodus was expected. Yet just one look at the sheer scale and magnitude of the exodus of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) explains why even the most rigorous action based on existing models of planning would still have fallen to the wayside. So while the government is indeed slow and unwieldy, it is absolutely clear that, like the earthquake in 2005, which displaced smaller numbers, given existing templates for crisis-management, the government alone cannot handle the tidal wave of humanity that outstrips the largest migration of refugees since partition alone. While the government should certainly resort to better multiple-track planning, as the primary engine and capacity for coordination can only be resourced by official agency, it should use the space and opportunity to build trust with citizens and launch a public-private participation drive.
Now that an All Parties Conference is out of the way, and cabinet can work with the useful imprimatur of public consensus behind its military operation, there is no excuse for an IDP war room not up and running in the PM’s Secretariat. This is needed for two reasons: the National Disaster Management apparatus does not exist in the provinces except on paper; secondly, the public can only rally around a coordinated national effort if it sees credible evidence of executive action from the top. If the Special Support Group created for this purpose expects public buy-in, it will have to inspire broader confidence in its leadership, as a record of transparency and accountability by key members in past projects like ERRA left much to be desired. Without transparency, no effort will be seen as either legitimate or effective.
The second broad theme that emerges in the dynamics of this refugee crisis is related to its political dimension. While a lot of the families streaming in on foot or borrowed transport from Buner, Swat and Dir are in a state of shock at the trial they are going through, nobody should expect them to give ringing condemnations of the Taliban that held them in thrall. Many speak privately of the fear they lived in, but equally many speak of the possibility of social justice under the Taliban. This is completely understandable for any population left in a social and governance vacuum. However, in no sense does it mean that the Robin-Hoodism of an early Taliban encounter with locals is either acceptable in the long-term, or sustainable even for the conservative inhabitants of this area simply because they did not vote for anything close to the Taliban. In fact, the people of these areas did not even vote for the mainstream religious parties who have a problem with the military operation per se, not just its dynamics or tactics. The votes from these areas came for the ANP and the PPP, both progressive if not secular parties. Women from the most oppressive domestic and social environments in areas likeLower Dircan only be expected to be indifferent to the prospects of a Taliban regime where female mobility is restricted in public spaces. However, families that traded on tourism see their livelihoods destroyed and their social fabric damaged. They may not endorse the rain of shrapnel on their rooftops, as military force is always heavy, often indiscriminate, but this should not drain public resolve to stand up to the advance of militants who criminalize society, mis-use religion and challenge the laws of the state.
A recent visit to the IDP camps in Mardan was as harrowing as educational. Even in brief conversations with the women, men, children and elders of the displaced population, nobody suggested that they wanted to stay on or take the side of the Taliban as the military moved in to encircle the hide-outs. Many women spoke in hushed tones about the prostitution that had been introduced in Swat society by the Taliban, while just as many didn’t seem to care if anyone was flogged or trafficked. The scorching heat of their tents, coupled with zero supply of electricity and clean drinking water and mixed latrines was enough incentive for them to welcome any militants who would restore them to the familiar domestic sanctuary of their homes.
The point here is as political as it is social. The country has made a collective choice that it rejects non-state actors that use the symbols and language of religious extremism to advance a non-mainstream agenda through the use of force. If we remain unclear about our resolve, or allow it to be confused with disagreements on military tactics, or are slow to mitigate the misery of the new IDPs, then we will lose the larger battle against extremism. As we move past the figure of 2.2 million refugees (United Nations Report,May 19, 2009) their growing numbers is a reminder of the collective responsibility that rests with us as a state and society fighting against religious militancy. This is certainly not the problem of the NWFP or even the federal government alone. Nor is it a partisan political issue. Infusing an ethnic or political narrative to the ongoing developments will only aggravate existing social fault lines. Instead of protesting the ingress of refugees into all provinces we should all be worrying about ensuring food security, potable water, clothes, power for fans, medical care, utensils and basic bedding.
The fight for re-installing the flag ofPakistanin lost territories will not just be fought in military gains against the jihadist outsiders, or in limiting collateral damage. It will be fought in the heat and dust of the refugee camps. Success will only be construed as real if we are able to give them their dignity and their lives back.
The writer is a former federal information minister and Member National Assembly from Pakistan Peoples Party.